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The emotional quagmire of abuse

08 November 2013

Paul Vallely asks whether mandatory reporting of child-abuse is a good idea

THIS is probably a dodgy thing for a Roman Catholic to say, but I am not convinced that it is a good idea to make it a criminal offence for teachers, social workers, and priests to fail to report child abuse, as the outgoing Director of Public Prosecutions has just proposed.

The view of Keir Starmer QC is that if such professional figures had had an obligation to report their suspicions to the police, then a serial abuser such as Jimmy Savile could have been stopped in his activities as early as 1964. Instead, he carried on his acts of sexual predation for another four decades.

Weight was added to the argument this week, when it was revealed that at the Benedictine boarding school at Downside, six monks had sexually assaulted children, or viewed images of child-abuse, between the late 1960s and the early 2000s. Most shockingly, after one of the early cases, Downside had sought advice on whether it had a legal obligation to report the offending monk to the police. Its lawyers said that it did not. The monk was moved to another school, where he offended again.

The case, which came to light only when police were trawling through Downside's old records while investigating a separate case, is only one example of the way in which institutions covered up sex abuse in the past. A Panorama programme on BBC1 this week had other examples, drawn from secular schools and care homes, which were covered up by school governors and civil servants. Rob Hastings, one of the Downside pupils who were abused, concluded that if society did not make reporting mandatory, it was saying that it did not really care about the abuse of children. This is an understandable response from a hurt man. But it is illogical. It is perfectly possible to be shocked, and insist that something must be done, without accepting that mandatory reporting is the answer.

It is easy to see why it sounds like a neat solution. And it is no surprise that both C of E and RC authorities are backing the idea. Given the track record of both organisations, they would come in for huge flak if they did not.

The abuse of children is a highly complex phenomenon. Jimmy Savile was protected by his own cunning cocktail of intimidation, bullying, and flattery. It is not clear that fear of prosecution would have diminished the power of this; indeed, it might have made it worse.

The vast majority of child-sexual abuse is perpetrated not by celebrities or priests, but by members of the child's own family or close family friends. This creates an emotional quagmire which mixes fear of abuse with fear of reprisal. It also fails to understand the ambiguously coercive power of grooming, and the crisis of self-confidence it creates in victims who are constantly told that they will not be believed.

It is revealing that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children - an organisation that is normally militant, sometimes excessively so, in protecting children's rights - has raised doubts about mandatory reporting. Its research suggests that children reveal what happens to them in stages. If they feel that those to whom they choose to confide will be obliged to go straight to the police, that might hamper the process of disclosure rather than assisting it. It might disempower professionals from using their judgement. It might force children into engaging with the law before they are psychologically ready or emotionally robust enough to do so.

Hard cases sometimes make bad laws. It is not demonstrating a lack of care for victims to warn of that.

Paul Vallely is Visiting Professor in Public Ethics at the University of Chester.

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